A bit of Korean War history
Packed with the other sardines in a leaking barge, I came ashore at Inchon in 1953, boarded a train apparently made from junkyard scraps, and landed, after “processing,” in Bupyeong, home of the 304th Signal Battalion’s Radio Company. This rice paddy village was off MSR No. 2 between Inchon and Seoul, a few miles south of Ascom City. The devastation of war was evident in wrecked buildings and on Korean faces. The strange land and people made me feel like an invader from Mars.
Bedcheck Charlie had been raiding before the cease-fire finally stopped him. When Charlie flew his single-prop plane at night over Radio Company, the men scrambled out of the huts with their weapons and jumped into foxholes and bunkers around the compound, some manning machine guns. The enemy aviator lobbed grenades in the pitch darkness, hoping to hit men and equipment, his vision impeded by searchlights from the ground. Most of his grenades managed to plow up the rice paddies.
Operation BIG SWITCH
Bruce Bottum was our radio-teletype operator who relayed the progress of the armistice negotiations from Panmunjom to Tokyo, before and during the signing in July. In August he was at Munsan-ni, reporting on Operation Big Switch, the major prisoner exchange. (There would be POW exchanges into 1954.)
These POW exchanges were contentious, to put it gently. As the Chinese and North Korean prisoners approached the exchange area on trucks, they stripped down to their shorts in protest against their American-made clothing and shouted “Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!” incessantly, waving small North Korean flags. With fists they broke the windows of the train that would take them back to North Korea, intentionally making their hands bleed on the broken glass.
With their blood they wrote defaming slogans on the sides of the train against the Americans.
Bruce was a witness to this exhibit of fanaticism and rage. One of the American prisoners was a high school acquaintance of his, a downed fighter pilot who was purportedly tied to a tree and had cold water thrown on him in the freezing cold of winter.
The mission of the 304th Signal Battalion (headquartered in Seoul) was to supply the 8th Army with radio, wire, photo and crypto support.
Our company, on the site of a WWII Japanese radio station, was the radio-teletype arm of 304th Signal. We slept in Japanese-built wood-and-cement huts and, outside the compound, was a minefield — and lots of raggedy kids, dust, mud, and stink. Originally, Radio Company was in a palace in Seoul, but a fire there in 1951 made it move to Bupyeong. I was assigned to the radio repair shop. My MOS of 1649 (Fixed Station Radio Repairman) was of little use in dealing with the mobile equipment I found.
Our mainstay was the AN/GRC-26, dubbed the “Angry 26.” These walk-in radio-teletype/voice rigs were mounted on deuce-and-a-halves for quick deployment. Radio electronics were based on vacuum tubes. Bristling with antenna posts, our company would have been an easy target from the air, had the Chinese and North Koreans not been pinned down by our forces.
The heartbreaks of the war must include the plight of the war orphans. Like other units in Korea, Radio Company hosted an orphanage, where the children had food, clothing, a place to live, and as much cheer as we could provide — like Christmas parties in our mess hail.
I am proud to have participated in the rescue of South Korea from the Communists, whose ferocity and determination to deliver South Korea to Kim Il Sung caused enough bloodshed and suffering to still spring tears among those who remember. But after everything is said and done, we must dwell on the importance of our action in Korea.
This is best summarized, I think, in the words of a label for the Korean War that I recently came across: “The substitute for World War III.” I think we can all be proud of the stunning result for the people of the Republic of Korea.